How to be an artist

‘I don’t care if you call my work journalism or art or whatever; whatever you want to call it is fine with me.’

Jonas Bendiksen

Open for Business

Over the past few months, I have been interviewing documentary photographers for a project about manufacturing industry. Open for Business is a partnership between Multistory and Magnum, several galleries and museums, and people who make things for a living—sausages, wind turbines, hats, battleships, electronics, hot air balloons and just about anything else that we use.

The photographers are Jonas Bendiksen, Stuart Franklin, Bruce Gilden, David Hurn, Peter Marlow, Martin Parr, Mark Power, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Chris Steele-Perkins.

The exhibition opened on Friday at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and will tour the UK for the next two years. It featured in the Financial Times Magazine in January and you can download a copy. The whole project raises interesting questions about the evolving nature of community arts practice, to which I’ll return another time, but today I want to talk a little about the experience of meeting these outstanding artists.

Talking to photographers

The interviews were filmed and edited for the show, so that visitors can hear each photographer talk about their approach, their experiences on location and what they wanted to capture in the images. Here, for example, is Mark Power talking about visiting the Bombardier and Nissan factories in Derby:

Each film is different. The photographers have diverse backgrounds, ideas and practices. They are members of the same co-op, but they’re individual and competitive. The exhibition at Bradford has the best qualities of a group show—a common theme but seen so differently by each photographer that the images are in a restless dialogue with one another,  and the viewer keeps changing their mind about which pictures they prefer and why.

At the same time, as I talked with such different people about their approach to the same problem—how to represent truthfully the ambiguous realities of people making thing—I felt that there were some common foundations to their work as artists.

How to be an artist

For example, I was struck by a command of craft that enabled them to focus on what they were seeing without distractions. They were curious and open to the world, interested in the people they met, the places they were visiting and how things were done. With none of the indifference put on by some artists, they engaged with the world, taking ethical or political positions as well as aesthetic ones, and happy to talk about their ideas and values.

I always felt that the photographers saw the world, the people they portrayed and the stories they were telling as more important than themselves. There’s plenty of personality, confidence, even ego in the films, as with most artists, but there’s also an underlying assumption that the photographer is not the story.

There are other things one might draw from these interviews, and each viewer will form their own impression. But for me, craft, openness, engagement, and humility seem a good set of qualities to bring to the task of being an artist. And the results—as evident in the quality of the images in the exhibition—seem to confirm that.

A note on language

Readers of other posts on this site might notice an inconsistency in the title of this one, since I’ve often argued against the essentialism that identifies artistic practice with being rather than doing. It’s true: it would have been better to call it ‘How to do artisting’, but unfortunately we only have verbs for the craft activities undertaken by an artist—painting, photographing, playing, performing etc.—not for the underlying creative and conceptual activity that gives that craft meaning. It could be be ‘to create’, but that word has acquired other meanings unconnected with art that complicate its interpretation (for more about this, see Winter Fires, pp 65-67). So, I’ve written ‘How to be an artist’ because it sounds better than any alternative I can think of, but I mean, ‘How to do artisting’.

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